The Limits of Buddhism

The Navy Yard shooter was a Buddhist. Here’s how meditation could have helped him. Or not”¦

Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, center, with Bishop of London Richard Chartres, right, and St.Paul's Cathedral Canon Pastor Reverend Michael Colclough  as he leaves St. Paul's Cathedral in London after receiving the 2012 Templeton Prize awarded to him for encouraging scientific research and harmony among religions, Monday, May 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Sept. 18, 2013, 9:15 a.m.

In the wake of the Navy Yard shoot­ing, Aaron Alex­is’s Buddhism has been mocked as “iron­ic” and cited as evid­ence that there’s simply no way to spot a fu­ture shoot­er. “I can’t be­lieve he did this,” his best friend and fel­low Buddhist Nut­pis­it Suthamte­wak­ul told CNN. “He nev­er showed any sign of vi­ol­ence.”

Ac­tu­ally, he did. Let’s re­view: In ad­di­tion to hear­ing voices, Alex­is was “cited at least eight times for mis­con­duct,” “drank al­co­hol fre­quently and in large quant­it­ies” — of­ten start­ing as early as “9:30 in the morn­ing” — and fre­quently ex­hib­ited an­ger and ag­gres­sion, such as the time that, after com­plain­ing about his up­stairs neigh­bor mak­ing noise, he fired a bul­let through the floor of her apart­ment. Or that time he shot the tires out of a parked car, after com­plain­ing he’d been dis­respec­ted by some nearby con­struc­tion work­ers. Now we learn via The Wash­ing­ton Post that Alex­is “dam­aged the fur­niture at a nightclub, was tossed out, and began us­ing pro­fan­ity on the street,” and via The New York Times that be­fore the Navy Yard shoot­ing, he called Rhode Is­land po­lice three times to com­plain he was be­ing kept awake by people send­ing him vi­bra­tions through the walls.

This is a man who re­portedly suffered post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order from his time as a 9/11 re­spon­der. He needed psy­chi­at­ric help, and fast. But it would ap­pear that the best — totally in­ad­equate — care he was get­ting was the self-care he got from at­tend­ing a Buddhist temple with friends and ex­plor­ing the be­ne­fits of med­it­a­tion. He wouldn’t be the first to do it and there is reas­on to be­lieve that such prac­tices can be help­ful.

The rate of sui­cide, crime, do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence, and sub­stance ab­use among vet­er­ans is ex­tremely high, and many mil­it­ary doc­tors have been in­cor­por­at­ing mind-body prac­tices such as yoga and med­it­a­tion much more in re­cent years. Nu­mer­ous sci­entif­ic stud­ies, some fun­ded by the Pentagon, have demon­strated that trauma-sens­it­ive yoga, with its em­phas­is on stretch­ing, med­it­a­tion, and breath­ing tech­niques can have a sig­ni­fic­ant calm­ing ef­fect on pa­tients whose brains have be­come hy­per­aroused un­der severe stress.

Robin Carnes, a vet­er­an yoga prac­ti­tion­er and who began work­ing with wounded troops at Wal­ter Reed Na­tion­al Mil­it­ary Med­ic­al Cen­ter in 2006, em­phas­ized an in­teg­rated ap­proach to deal­ing with trauma. People like Alex­is, she said, clearly need psy­chi­at­ric help, but for many the best ap­proach in­cludes a com­bin­a­tion of psy­cho­ther­apy, med­ic­a­tion, and the mind-body ap­proach.

Pro­longed stress or trauma can cause a dis­rup­tion of the para­sym­path­et­ic nervous sys­tem, the part of the brain that al­lows the body to re­lax. This para­sym­path­et­ic nervous sys­tem can be­come “frozen” in war zones as the body pre­pares for danger by pump­ing ad­ren­aline in­to the blood­stream. That’s one of the reas­ons so many vet­er­ans with PTSD turn to drugs and al­co­hol, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a clini­cian and re­search­er who has stud­ied PTSD since the 1970s. One of the best ways to calm the body down, he said, is yoga.

Carnes — who re­cently es­tab­lished an or­gan­iz­a­tion called War­ri­ors at Ease, which cer­ti­fies teach­ers to use yoga tech­niques with the mil­it­ary — en­dorsed an in­teg­rated ap­proach. “Yoga and med­it­a­tion help people self-reg­u­late and feel safe in their bod­ies again,” she ex­plained. “After trauma, people of­ten va­cate their bod­ies, and trauma-sens­it­ive yoga can help people feel safe in their bod­ies again.”

She was less con­vinced that Buddhist med­it­a­tion would be help­ful for someone like Alex­is, ex­plain­ing that there are many types of med­it­a­tion prac­ticed in Buddhism and not all of them cor­res­pond to good mind-body work. “There are kinds of med­it­a­tion that en­cour­age you to leave your body,” she noted, “which would be ter­rible for him.”

Van der Kolk parsed it a bit dif­fer­ently. Med­it­a­tion would be help­ful for some people with PTSD, he said, be­cause it “has dir­ect con­nec­tions to the alarm cen­ter in the brain.” But he cau­tioned that the most severely trau­mat­ized people can­not tol­er­ate the still­ness of med­it­a­tion.

“It’s a very well known fact,” he said. “The mo­ment you be­come still, all the im­ages and sen­sa­tions of the misery of the past are com­ing back.”

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